Where I mix career information and career decision making in a test tube and see what happens

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Careers in Advocacy

Is there something you feel strongly about? Instead of just getting worked up about it, maybe you could do something about it. Your chances for making a difference are particularly good if you are well informed about the issue through work experience or have work-related skills that can help advance your pet cause. Have you thought about parlaying that work experience into a career in which you advocate for your favorite cause?

One way people create change is by changing the laws. In our political system, legislators do this. Legislators usually have a thorough understanding of the existing laws, and at least in one area of expertise. (They have legislative staff and lobbyists to inform them about other areas.) Because politics is the art of the possible, legislators generally construct new laws in ways that will build a consensus among their fellow legislators and the voting public. Often they work out the details in committee meetings and hearings that enable these stakeholders and others to offer their suggestions and buy into the proposed legislation.

Of course, politicians must answer to the opinions of voters. Similarly, businesses must answer to the preferences of consumers. Many professionals work in public relations to shape the attitudes that drive voting and purchasing behaviors. Public relations workers may create campaigns that advocate for change in the law, in government policy, and in corporate actions. Campaigns can be aimed at many kinds of behaviors—think of Smokey the Bear. Public relations workers may raise funds for research, a candidate’s political advertising, a university, or a public facility such as a museum or monument. They may work as lobbyists, communicating their talking points directly to legislators.

Another way to achieve change is through existing laws. You can work to compel the enforcement of laws that are being neglected or are being enforced too narrowly. Or you can compel a person, company, or even a government agency to change its behavior by suing for damages. Our democracy allows any citizen to petition an agency or file a legal brief, but lawyers are the workers who make a career out of this kind of action. They are assisted by paralegals and law clerks.

Yet one more way to work for change is through the media. Journalists and news analysts often arouse public interest in political, social, cultural, and business issues. Recently, some bloggers have become as influential as workers in the more traditional media. Speechwriters also communicate opinions. Although someone else serves as the writer’s mouthpiece and usually has considerable control over the content, you can choose to work for someone whose outlook you share.

Advocates work under some pressure, but they make many independent decisions. Not all of their efforts succeed in advancing the causes they care about, and sometimes they confront people who disagree strongly. Nevertheless, they enjoy the rewards of at least trying to make a difference.

Politics and other advocacy careers offer many opportunities for gaining experience through volunteer work. Find a local organization that works for the cause that motivates you and offer your services. If no such organization exists, start one. Advocacy groups need all kinds of volunteer workers, but if you’re interested in a career in advocacy, you should play a role that gives you appropriate experience. For example, you could write position papers and press releases, research legal issues, speak at public meetings, arrange meetings with legislators, manage a fund drive, or canvass voters.

Many people who work in advocacy leverage the knowledge that they have acquired in a previous occupation. For example, President Barack Obama entered politics after working as a lawyer and law professor, but he was greatly influenced by his earlier work as a community organizer. That experience educated him about the needs of working people and how politics operates at the grassroots level. Former Representative Tom DeLay of Texas earned a bachelor’s degree in biology, worked for a pesticide manufacturer, and then started a highly successful extermination business. When the Environmental Protection Agency banned a pesticide that was in wide use, DeLay decided to advocate for reducing government regulation of businesses. He volunteered as a Republican precinct chairman and eventually ran for a seat in the Texas legislature, which was his springboard to Congress.

Because it is a way to use knowledge from a previous occupation, advocacy is one of the career fields I discuss in The Sequel: How to Change Your Career Without Starting Over. Is there some issue that you have become informed and opinionated about through your work? Maybe you can advocate for it.

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